Syria asserts right to enter Golan, occupied by Israel
DAMASCUS — The Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said Sunday that President Bashar Assad’s troops have the right to enter the Israeli-occupied Golan whenever they wish, a veiled threat toward Israel to stay out of Syria’s conflict.
‘‘The Golan is Syrian Arab territory and will remain so, even if the Israeli army is stationed there,’’ Zoubi said at a news conference. “We have the right to go in and out of it whenever we want and however we please,’’ he said.
His comments came in response to last week’s Israeli airstrikes on Syria, which Israeli officials say targeted advanced Iranian missiles intended for Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The strikes marked a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and raised fears that a conflict that has spilled over Syria’s borders could turn into a regional war.
Syria has threatened to retaliate but the official response was relatively mild.
‘‘Israel should understand that the Syrian skies are not a picnic for anyone,’’ Zoubi warned.
‘‘We are a people who do not forget to retaliate against those who commit aggression against us, and we do not forget our martyrs or those who killed them,’’ he said.
Israeli officials had no comment.
Assad’s regime might be reluctant to open a new front against Israel with his army already stretched thin in the fight with the rebels.
But he has a history of operating through proxies, such as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah or radical Syrian-based Palestinian factions that can potentially launch attacks on Israel from the Golan.
In a separate development, Syrian rebels on Sunday released four Filipino UN peacekeepers they abducted last week in a dramatic incident that prompted warnings from the Philippines that the nation might pull out its contingent from the Golan Heights.
The four Filipinos, seized Tuesday, were apparently unharmed, but they will undergo a medical checkup and stress debriefing, said Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan.
A statement by the rebel group holding the peacekeepers — the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade — said the four were handed over to a UN delegation in the border area on Sunday, but provided no other details.
The peacekeepers are part of a UN contingent that patrols a buffer zone between Syria and the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967. It was the second abduction of Filipino peacekeepers since March, when 21 were held for three days by rebels fighting Assad.
The Philippine foreign secretary has said he would recommend withdrawing Filipinos from the peacekeeping contingent in Syria, but the decision is up to the country’s president.
The buffer zone has been quiet for four decades, but tensions have risen there since the outbreak of the revolt in Syria more than two years ago.
The Syrian uprising escalated into a civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions of Syrians. The two sides have been largely deadlocked on the battlefield.